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  • Writer's pictureChica Jo

Inconceivable? That does mean what you think it means.

Almost 2 years. That's how long it's been since we've heard from Paul. It's not that he's been slacking. He's actually been working on crafting this post all that time... longer actually. It's just that boat life means trying to get ahead of entropy which is like swimming against 5 knots of current. He constantly gets pulled from the flow of working on the blog to fix one darn thing or another that salt water and salt air are constantly trying to return to free atomic particles. If I could have created a daylight time lapse of my hubby the past two years and crunched down into two minutes to show you, it would look like this: 30 seconds of Paul crouched over some boat thing-a-ma-jig, 15 seconds of him hunched over his laptop, painstakingly placing orders for boat what-cha-ma-call-it parts, a brief flash of him taking a hike with me, 30 seconds of him bent over some other boat gizmo, a brief flash of him diving with me with his camera in tow, 15 seconds of him on tech support, staring at his phone trying to troubleshoot why something he ordered isn't working right, a brief flash of him editing the photos and videos he got for this post, and another (shoot...I gotta do math here) 30 seconds of him hanging upside down under some part of the boat with epoxy and a brush in his hand. Well, today, after my weekly nagging, he finally did it! Be sure to watch all of his videos all the way through as there are some fun surprises if you do. Now, I'll hush my southern gush and let Paul take it . . .

Inconceivable? That does mean what you think it means.
What a torpid echinoderm taught me about the origin of the universe.

When we were new to sailing, Jo and I had already been diving together for some 8 years. In fact, diving was the main reason we had for getting a boat to start with, and Triplefin came with a dive compressor. So, theoretically, we could fill up our tanks in the middle of the ocean and drop down for a dive, which we have since done. But that compressor was several years older than us (yes, making it—and us—officially ‘vintage’). It was also rusty, rattley and just plain didn’t look right. Seeing as a ruptured compressor or tank could blow a hole straight through a boat (or through a person for that matter), we decided to splurge and get a brand-spanking-newly-rebuilt, name-brand, 20 year old compressor—a veritable whipper-snapper compared to our old stegosaurus. That year, we headed north, super eager to dive the rarely-visited, rocky fingered, Las Cocinas anchorage, one of our favorite overlooked spots in the Sea of Cortez. We sailed a couple days just to get there, and with my dive gear all ready, I started up the compressor, and it began filling my tank. Well, hot damn! Finally, we were going diving! And then the compressor just stopped. I started it again, it stopped again. Started, stopped. Stopped starting.

The wild and wonderful Las Cocinas anchorage in Sonora.

Well, crap. Of course, as boat owners, we know that something will always go wrong, and no matter what you thought you could fix, you probably don’t know how to fix this. Forget YouTube; it’s nowhere to be seen so far off the grid*. So, I started pulling things apart, keeping in mind Aldo Leopold’s admonition that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts”. But while I was doing that, we were witnessing a sight I was longing for: the clearest water you can see in the Gulf. Individual sand grains were clearly visible resting on our anchor from my dry perch topside. And scattered all over the sand were dozens of some of our favorite animals: unpretentious yet fascinatingly complex sand dollars. Although perfectly still to our eyes, their tell-tale ruts through the sand betrayed their animism. I then had an inspirational thought: time-lapse! I could show you their movement over the course of hours with time-lapse photography. How awesome would that be?!?

And I would do it, just as soon as I finished the compressor. Just a few more minutes, right? Or maybe hours??. . .

Sometime in the afternoon the next day, sitting on deck surrounded by a smorgasbord of roly-poly loose bits, I finally figured it out: someone had simply put the wrong o-ring deep in the heart of the beast. Well glory-be. I got ALL the parts back together and we had a working compressor again.

Now back to the sand dollars. If only I could see them. The water had turned murky green and the bottom, along with the sand dollars, was nowhere to be found. Well, double crap. If the day before, I had just been mindful, just slowed down and reflected, I would have stepped away from the ostensibly urgent task of fixing the compressor and I would have jumped in on snorkel and had a video to show you just how awesome this creature and this place is. I missed out because I was in another dimension, on a different time scale.

I had Jo promise me that she would tell me whenever I got too deep into work that I was missing out on great opportunities like that echinoderm scuttlebutt right in front of me.

Fast forward three years when we were fighting a norther’ and pulled into the relative calm behind Punta Coyote in Bahia de los Perros (Dogs Bay) on Isla Tiburon. The water was green, but you could still see them: hundreds, nay, thousands of sand dollars. Jo reminded me to make sure I gave them the attention they deserved this time. Conditions were good enough that day to at least show you this:

The next morning I woke to that incredibly rare sight: crystal clear water, along with those thousands of living disks on the sand.

I’d had the last three years to prepare for this and knew exactly what to do. I broke out a camera, mounted it on a special weighted platform I constructed for just such an occasion, kayaked out, dropped the camera in a patch of the seemingly sedentary echinoderms and let the filming commence. Then I got back to rapid fire work on whatever boat stuff was on the agenda.

I let the camera roll for a few hours while I ripped apart the defective pre-pump on our desalinator (don’t ask), then went back to check the footage. It worked! I actually caught motion of the skittery critters. There you could see a slow creep along the sea floor.

I spent the next few days playing around with camera sets and settings. I ended up with thousands of images and hours of filming. Now the less exciting work began. Getting all this material together in a tidy form that you, my audience member, could appreciate.

The hours on this computer required my full attention, second only to the writing I’m doing about it now. I had to slow down from the ironic hubbub of living the dream to finally appreciate these remarkable critters. This is where I really started to understand what I had witnessed.

Here's 6 hours of video and 7,742 still RAW images compressed into 42 seconds:

Finally, after two years of want, after days of work, I myself really started to appreciate what was happening right in front of me all the time. I realized there was something more profound to be gathered from this spectacle than just awesome visuals. Here’s my crack at trying to explain it:

The rest of the universe doesn’t exist on the same scale of time and space that we do. We, with our frantic lives full of nearly infinite possibilities of how to spend our time; we, with the nearly complete sum of human knowledge digitally accessible in our pockets, just can’t appreciate. If I can’t see with my own eyes what happens over the course of a few hours with life forms I think I know relatively well (e.g. sand dollars), how can I possibly understand what it’s like to be a sequoia tree, that measures its activities over the course of millennia, rather than minutes like we do? How about hummingbirds, who can whip around you at 60 wing beats per second?

What’s it like to be a fossil?

How hard is it to understand Life Itself? No wonder some of us don’t believe in evolution. How can you believe in something you can’t see, hear, touch, or taste?

It’s hard enough to think about how long 4,000 years ago was, which is the biblical age of creation. But now we know that the universe is about 13,700,000,000 years old. That’s a lesson that’s 3,425,000 times as hard to believe as the Bible. Now we have a telescope that can see images of objects that are now 270,400,000,000,000 miles away—what’s it like to really comprehend that?

Galaxy HD1 is the farthest away thing from Earth we know about. We are seeing it as it was 13.7 billion years ago. It may no longer exist. Image courtesy Harikane et al., CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is the universe inconceivable?!? Yes, and that does mean what you think it means.

But here’s the thing. It simply is not in our psychology to understand things that happen over very large, very small, very slow, or very fast scales.

However, we can indeed employ our troglodytic brains to get a vague impression of non-human experiences. One way is through technology. Case in point: in 1676 when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first peered through a ground piece of glass and found microbes, that was something beyond humanity’s natural experience. It was just not conceivable that there were animalicues (what today we call bacteria and protists) living damn near everywhere. Fast forward a few centuries and we have electron microscopes. And we have time-lapse photography to see things that are slower than us, but still beyond our perception otherwise.

1632-1723 Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was the first person to see sperm for the first time, which he claims to have collected from his wife. Of course, he published his ‘findings’ – fully illustrated. I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess what the stains on the manuscript are. Portrait courtesy Wellcome (ya can’t make that up) Library, London. Wellcome Images.

Going even further, we can infer the presence of things and phenomena that we can’t even see with our own eyes, even with the benefit of technology. We could not possibly know that electrons exist or that the universe was formed by the Big Bang without some serious technology coupled with profound imagination.

But, back to sand dollars. Here’s the real mind blower: Not only do sand dollars exist on a time scale foreign to us, they even exist in a different set of dimensions than us. Most adult sand dollars live in a thin plane of existence at the sand surface. Scooting along the sea floor, there are only two directions to turn: right or left. There are basically 360 degrees of experience for them; apart from some light or dark from above in the water column sensed by photoreceptors on their dorsal surfaces, and the feel of the sand below sensed by tube feet, there is no third direction to go, no third dimension. Moving around in three dimensions is as foreign to them as their torpid movement is to us.

Although we can only faintly glimpse what it’s like to be a sand dollar, we can be mindful, be still, think imaginatively, and use that technology. If so, then maybe, just maybe, we can sense some light from above, and feel that sand from below.

And maybe next time I’ll be able to conceive of the reality that’s right before me and jump in the damn water.

Special Bonus Videos!

For all we know, the following represents the internal state of a sand dollar. Play with sound ON!

And here's the Director's Cut, just for kicks:

And, why not?

*Sooo. . .when I started writing this about a year ago, YouTube and the net were indeed nowhere to be found. But now as I finish, we’re connected to the rest of the global machine through what might aptly be called Narcissistnet.

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